St. Charles County

The Secret Life of Gunther Russbacher

The convicted felon claims he was a Navy captain, a CIA operative and George Bush’s pilot in the infamous October Surprise Scandal

first published in the Riverfront Times (St. Louis), August 5, 1992

by C.D. Stelzer

JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — North, south, east and west. The lines in Gunther Karl Russbacher’s brow run in all directions. There appears to be a crease for every one of his 50 years. Deep undulating furrows that register emotional changes across a craggy facial landscape.

I’m trying to catch my breath, I’m not quite with it yet,” says Russbacher, after entering the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility here. He is carrying a foot-thick binder of court briefs, depositions, memos, diary entries,bills of lading, letters of credit and loading manifests. And while not gasping for air, the heavy paper load makes it easy to believe this man is under stress.

To reach inmate 184306, a visitor must be escorted through three check points and five clanging sets of iron bars. Gunther Karl Russbacher is a prisoner– and not just any ordinary prisoner. But beyond that, no one is sure who he really is. So far, those interested in finding out have included Texas billionaire Ross Perot, the United States Congress and Geraldo Rivera.

In the past, Russbacher has admittedly used aliases such as Emory Joseph Peden,Robert Andrew Walker and Robert Behler. He has also allegedly been known as “The Raven.” The last pseudonym could be classified a nom de guerre, because Russbacher claims to be a Navy captain — and not just any ordinary Navy captain.

Federal authorities arrested him in July 1990 for impersonating a military officer at Castle Air Force Base in Atwater, Calif. The charge led to Russbacher’s probation revocation in St. Charles Co., where he had a 1989 conviction for stealing through deceit. Russbacher pleaded guilty in that case to defrauding clients of the St. Louis-based National Brokerage Companies, which he headed. He received a 21-year sentence. In both of these instances, Russbacher now claims he was carrying out covert duties for the United States government.

By his own account, he is a CIA operative with knowledge of the agency’s involvement in financial fraud, drug trafficking, and illicit arms trading.

Russbacher established National Brokerage and other proprietary companies, including a failed savings and loan in Pennsylvania, at the behest of the CIA, he alleges. He further charges that his military and criminal records — ostensibly altered to infiltrate terrorists and narcotic rings — are now being used against him.

In addition, Russbacher claims his 1990 arrest followed a secret flight to inform Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev of the pending war with Iraq. This would be fantastic enough, but it’s not all. As an aviator attached to the Office of Naval Intelligence, Russbacher says he piloted a BAC-111 aircraft — with George Bush on board — to Paris in 1980. Perhaps more importantly, Russbacher claims to have shuttled Bush back to the United States a few hours later in an SR-71 spy plane — and he professes to have proof.

His knowledge of these events is the real reason he is in prison, Russbacher says. Bush’s French rendezvous purportedly finalized earlier negotiations between the Reagan-Bush campaign and Islamic revolutionaries. Those talks supposedly centered on delaying the release of 52 American hostages then being held by Iran until after the November presidential elections. In exchange for prolonging their captivity, the Iranians were allegedly promised arms and spare parts to supply their burgeoning war with Iraq. According to Russbacher, the Reaganites also forked over $40 million up front to seal the deal.

The move was meant to assure a Republican victory over then-President Jimmy Carter and preempt any “October surprise,” or last-minute administration plan to gain the hostages release.

Russbacher is not the first nor most credible person to make these allegations. Reagan administration member Barbara Honegger published the initial October Surprise book in 1989. In 1990, Gary Sick, a National Security Council member in the Carter administration, renewed interest in the subject through a New York Times op-ed article. Sick followed it up last year with a volume of his own.

Although there seems to be substance to these claims, there is uncertainty as to Bush’s presence at the Paris meetings. Citing Secret Service logs and interviews, the House October Surprise Task Force, a congressional inquiry now under way, dismissed the possibility of president’s participation in an interim report issued June 30. In February, a lengthy analysis by writer Frank Snepp of the Village Voice similarly refuted the premise.

Another writer delving into related scandals didn’t get a chance to jump to any conclusions. Journalist Danny Casolaro was found dead in a Martinsburg, W. Va. motel room last August. The local coroner ruled it a suicide. But Casolaro’s investigation into the BCCI banking debacle and Inslaw computer software case has left doubt as to the actual cause of his death. Within this context, and given his alleged association with such shadowy figures as arms merchant Richard Brenneke and self-proclaimed CIA contract agent Michael Riconosciuto, Russbacher’s incredible story teeters on the verge of plausibility.

Inside the Control Unit of the Missouri Correctional Facility at Jefferson City,the air conditioning isn’t working in one of the two visiting rooms. The four by four closet-sized space is furnished with two metal folding chairs and divided in the middle by a narrow counter top. Windows and a concave mirror allow prison guards to keep watch. The cubbyhole is thick with humidity as Russbacher, dressed in a sky blue sweat suit, begins to divulge the trump that he believes will set him free, and, ultimately, lead to either President Bush’s impeachment or resignation.

“It’s actually quite a simple thing,” says Russbacher. “Every (SR) 71 flight– be it a training session or actual mission — is documented through a voice cockpit and video cockpit recorder,” he explains. According to Russbacher, the plane’s recording devices “document each and every facial expression, every movement of your hands and every turn of the instruments.” After the video is transmitted in six-second bites to one of three satellites positioned at “keyhole 11, 12 or 13” a signature is superimposed at the bottom of the screen, which includes: the exact time, aircraft of origin and its location.

“It’s beamed back down to the NSA (National Security Agency) station at Fort Meade,Md. There is no way to tamper with it. If you try to make a secondary copy from the original, bar codes jump up,” says Russbacher.”

This tape is in our possession,” he adds. Once the tape is turned over to congressional investigators and authenticated, he has been promised a release from prison and immunity from prosecution, Russbacher claims. His supporters, those who purloined the recording, form a cadre of disgruntled covert operatives, according to Russbacher. The way he explains it, there is a war going on within the intelligence community that involves three groups. “Faction one is the pro-Bush or the loyal faction within the agency,” says Russbacher. “Faction two (is) comprised mainly out of ONI (Office of Naval Intelligence) handlers.” These are the good guys, according to Russbacher. “Faction two is loyal, basically, to the Constitution and to the concept of military law and order.” Russbacher indicates the third bunch is in league with the second. “They’re called rouge elephants.They’re stationed overseas, they’re stringers, they’re cutouts, they’re low-level agents.” Be it an act or the bonafide portrayal, Russbacher’s stance hasn’t gone unreviewed.

Back in February — days after announcing an interest in the presidency — Ross Perot sent his top lawyer, David Bryant, and two pilots to interview the Missouri inmate. Perot also contacted Rep. Richard A. Gephardt in regard to Russbacher’s treatment at the Fulton Correctional Facility. Gephardt’s office in turn requested Missouri House Speaker Bob Griffin inquire about Russbacher’s condition. Griffin then spoke to George Lombardi, a state prison official. This flurry of concern came after Perot’s delegation was refused the right to interview Russbacher. At the time, Russbacher, who claims a heart condition, was being cloistered at the University Hospital in Columbia, Mo. News accounts have implied Russbacher feigned illness to dodge the investigators. Russbacher denies this, but says he still can’t state what transpired out of fear for himself and his family.

When The RFT asked why he had been admitted, a hospital spokeswoman said the information was confidential. Since being moved to Jefferson City, Russbacher has been placed in protective custody. Because of the delay, Bryant and both pilots departed before speaking to Russbacher. To determine his familiarity with the SR-71, the remaining investigator, Bob Peck, asked a specific question about TEB, a jet fuel additive, according to Russbacher. The question came despite agreeing in advance not to discuss the aircraft, he says. With a prison official monitoring the interview, the self-professed spy plane pilot either couldn’t answer the questioner was unwilling to do so under the circumstances.

Russbacher’s reticence became one more reason for the press to label him a charlatan. Russbacher has no compunction about discussing the SR-71 now, however. “You know what TEB stands for?” he asks. “That’s for tetra ethyl-borane, which is like the stuff you squirt into a car on a cold morning.”

Such details and jargon add credibility to Russbacher’s story. There is also the stubble of beard that contrasts with his bald pate, and a subtle comportment that projects a military air. The combination seems almost enough to transform “Capt.”Russbacher’s prison garb into a flight suit. More startling is his missing fingernails, the result, Russbacher claims, of having been tortured by the enemy after he crashed over Laos during the Vietnam War. Eyeglasses offer the finishing touch to his persona.

If this were a movie, Robert Duvall would be cast in the role. Indeed, Russbacher’s alleged exploits have already piqued an interest within the entertainment industry.He is quick to cite Gorby Leon, of Coumbia Picture’s story department, as one of his contacts. He also granted Geraldo Rivera’s “Now it Can be Told” a five-and-a-half hour interview recently. The segment never ran, and since then the TV show has been cancelled. True to character, Russbacher attributes its demise to forces more nefarious than low ratings. Likewise, members of the House October Surprise Task Force aren’t tuning in the “Gunther Russbacher Show,” or so they would have it seem. Richard Lewis, a spokesman for the task force in Washington, D.C., cannot comment on specifics, but says all individuals who claim participation or knowledge of events surrounding the October Surprise are being interviewed.

However, as mentioned earlier, the task force has already refuted Russbacher’s allegation that Bush attended the 1980 Paris meetings. To explain this premature judgment, Lewis notes that task force chairman, Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), “is intent upon not having this seen as a partisan investigation.” Russbacher sees just that. “Hamilton entertained thoughts that he would become Mr. Clinton’s running mate.

You will find that Mr. Hamilton will be more at ease now with the situation, … and I think you will see a retraction quite soon,” he says. “Lee Hamilton doesn’t play little games like that,” responds Lewis. The spokesman concedes Hamilton was”very wary” of accusations against Bush from the beginning. The committee chairman wanted to “show good faith” and give the perception of professionalism by refuting the allegations as soon as possible, Lewis says.

Presidents always seem to garner “good faith” from the pols and the press. Russbacher hasn’t been nearly as fortunate. Mainstream media, if they refer to him at all, they often don’t mention his name. The best reporting on the subject has been by small independent newspapers like the Jefferson City News Tribune and the Napa(Calif.) Sentinel. The St. Louis Post Dispatch, by contrast, calls Russbacher “the great pretender,” but seems more fawning to Bush administration officials. In reporting a visit by U.S. ambassador Donald Gregg on June 8, the newspaper failed to mention that the former CIA official has been implicated in the October Surprise. And only in the photo caption is there word that Gregg conferred with Missouri Gov. John Ashcroft before speaking to the World Affairs Council. Interestingly, this was the first time Ashcroft attended such a seminar, according to a council spokeswoman.

In St. Charles, assistant prosecutor Phillip W. Groenweghe appears no more eager to talk about the Russbacher case. Repeated calls to his office went unreturned last week. Robert Fleming, a court-appointed public defender, provided the following background on his client. Russbacher acquired a record for passing bad checks in the Army as a teenager. Then in the 70s, he was placed on probation after being convicted on federal charges in Louisiana of carrying bearer bonds, while dressed in a Army major’s uniform. Before now, Russbacher “doesn’t seem to have served anytime in any penitentiary,” says Fleming. This dovetails with his contention that he has been “sheepdipped,” Fleming says. The espionage term describes a spy whose identity has been changed.

Fleming is challenging Russbacher’s conviction on grounds that the statute of limitations had expired and that his client previously received inadequate legal counsel. National Brokerage Companies, the alleged CIA proprietary, was registered with the state in January 1986. The names connected to the company are Emory Joseph Peden, Russbacher’s alias, and Peggy Russbacher, his former wife. A Florissant firm now using the title appears to be unrelated, Fleming says. Russbacher and his wife also incorporated other companies, according to Fleming, but investigators have been unable to find records of any National Brokerage spin-offs, which Russbacher asserts were part of the CIA operation. Russbacher says he ran the CIA proprietary at 7711 Bonhomme in Clayton and shared an office with the Connecticut Mutual Insurance Company.

There may even be a more secretive organization behind Russbacher’s activities. As the interview concludes, he shows off a the wide gold band he wears on one finger. There are enigmatic symbols inscribed on the ring. “The pyramid is also the symbol for delta,” Russbacher cryptically explains. Other symbols, shaped like asterisks, represent the eight points of the earth, he says. “I’m just telling you very few people wear this ring. My wife has one, I have one. All other married couples wear them. They’re handmade. It signifies the ability to strike as a unit for the sake of humanity,” says Russbacher.

“It’s a very long story.”

The More Things Change, The More They Stay the Same

When C.D. Stelzer called the Department of Energy’s FUSRAP office back in 1997, a secretary for a private company answered the phone, two corporate managers acted as mouthpieces for the government, and the DOE official in charge had gone elk hunting.


First published in The Riverfront Times (St. Louis), Dec. 3, 1997

IT’S SHIFT CHANGE on Friday afternoon at the Boeing Aircraft plant north of Lambert Field, and workers are fleeing in droves, streaming bumper-to-bumper down McDonnell Boulevard, oblivious to the narrow, 21.7-acre piece of real estate next to the thoroughfare. Until recently, this barren stretch of earth offered little to see besides an abundance of weeds surrounded by a rusty cyclone fence topped with barbed wire. In late September, however, the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) began rearranging the landscape on the property. From the shoulder of the road, where it crosses Coldwater Creek, a yellow bulldozer and backhoe can now be seen parked near a plywood wall extending across the top of the steep embankment leading down to the creek bed.

It’s hard to tell, at a glance, that the work in progress here is part of an overall federal project estimated to cost nearly $800 million. Ordinary building materials — bales of straw, rocks and plastic sheeting — create a setting common to construction sites. But this is no ordinary erosion-control action. Soil at this location, known in regulatory circles as SLAPS (St. Louis airport site), harbors deadly byproducts of the nuclear-weapons industry, which developed during World War II and mushroomed in the Cold War. From 1946 until the mid-1960s, the U.S. Army — and, later, the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) — dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of radioactive waste, residue from uranium processing at the Mallinckrodt Chemical Works in St. Louis.

As a consequence, the acreage, which is now owned by the St. Louis Airport Authority, has been contaminated with increased levels of uranium-238, radium-226 and thorium-230, according to the DOE. This is no new discovery, of course. Official foot-dragging has been going on for decades. More than 20 years ago the DOE discovered that contaminants had migrated into ditches next to McDonnell Boulevard, where they have settled only inches from the surface. There are still no signs to warn passersby or curious onlookers of this danger.

Failure to inform the public and act in a timely manner has been the hallmark of this case. At the same time, public-health officials have consistently downplayed or ignored the potential health consequences of radiation exposure. After allowing the waste to spread for more than 50 years, the federal government is now belatedly rushing to deal with the problem in a fashion comparable to its past negligence. In the process, rules have been sidestepped and decisions made without a full understanding of their implications. The powers-that-be first attempted to keep the problem a secret, after World War II, for “national-security reasons.” By the late 1970s, however, the festering pollution had become a heated public issue.

The waste itself has proven even more difficult to contain than the controversy over it.

COLDWATER CREEK, which is next to the site, flows through a large section of North St. Louis County and has acted as a convenient vehicle to transport the toxic materials. So far, radioactive contaminants are known to have hitched a ride downstream more than seven miles, according to the DOE. And the migration is continuing. Tests conducted in late 1994 show stormwater runoff at the location still exceeding acceptable radiation levels set by the agency. Drinking-water intakes for the city of St. Louis are located several miles downstream from the site, on the Mississippi River at Chain of Rocks. The radioactive migration by way of groundwater has also been confirmed but is less well understood.

For years, the DOE claimed the waste presented no danger. But the scientific community, which has been moving much more slowly than the waste, has finally concluded that no safe level of radiation exposure exists. By the time this decision was made several years ago, it was also widely accepted that one direct effect of long-term exposure to low-level radiation is cancer.

The $8.3 million cleanup along Coldwater Creek is the first stage of the long-anticipated project. The initial phase involves removing at least 6,000 cubic yards of the contaminated soil to a licensed repository for low-level radioactive waste, located in Utah. The amount is only a small fraction of the contaminated materials that may ultimately be excavated and shipped from the site. The approximate completion date: 2004.

But the entire project now stands in bureaucratic limbo. Less than a month after the DOE started working at the airport site, Congress transferred authority for the cleanup to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The change came about as a part of the latest Energy and Water Appropriations Bill, signed into law by the president in October. Under the legislation, the corps will be handed the remainder of the $5 million already allocated to the DOE for this fiscal year to shore up the small section of Coldwater Creek. The money is in addition to the $140 million appropriation for 1998 that continues funding a nationwide cleanup of low-level radioactive-waste sites. The act also stipulates that the corps must conduct a three-month assessment of the Formerly Utilized Sites Remediation Action Program (FUSRAP), the federal aegis under which the airport site falls.

For the time being, the cleanup of Coldwater Creek is expected to continue uninterrupted, according to David Leake, project manager for the corps. “Congress has made it fairly clear that they do not want the transfer to result in any delay,” says Leake. This pragmatic strategy, however, locks the corps into adopting some of the DOE’s prior policies and practices, many of which have fallen into question in the past.

R. Roger Pryor, executive director of the Missouri Coalition for the Environment, says the corps isn’t carrying the same baggage as the DOE. “I feel the corps doesn’t have the past bias that nuclear waste is somehow good for you,” says Pryor. “However, changing horses in midstream is difficult.”

Even though the airport site is on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) National Priorities List (NPL), the DOE, through a regulatory loophole, was allowed to proceed with the Coldwater Creek excavation without formulating any long-range cleanup plan for the entire site. Furthermore, the DOE’s interim plan admits the area now being dug up may have to undergo remediation again sometime in the future. In other words, the current work is at best a stopgap measure. The project may also leave some radioactive contaminants behind because the excavation doesn’t go deep enough. In addition, the DOE started working on the site before a hydrogeological study, which it commissioned, had been completed. A previous hydrogeological study, published last year, cautioned that the groundwater system underneath the site was not clearly understood. The panel of experts concurred that implementation of any excavation work would necessitate further site characterization.

Specifically, the panel, which comprised government and industry scientists, warned of the existence of large volumes of radioactive contamination in the middle of the 21.7-acre site. The location of those contaminants is uphill from the current excavation work. It doesn’t take a nuclear physicist to figure out
that water rolls downhill. By beginning the cleanup at the low end of the site, the DOE hoped to create a buffer that would stop or at least slow the migration of the radioactive pollutants into the creek. But by starting at this point, the department admittedly risks re-contaminating the area it has chosen to clean up. Sheet erosion from rainfall will continue to allow contaminants to move toward the creek. Groundwater will head in the same general direction. Indeed, the subterranean currents may circumvent the DOE’s efforts altogether because, according to the experts, the hydrogeological structure beneath the site pushes groundwater both north and west under McDonnell Boulevard.

“I’m delighted that they are beginning to clean up the airport site,” says Kay Drey, an environmental activist from University City. “But they’re not doing it safely.” Drey, who fought for the cleanup for years, resigned from the project’s oversight committee on Sept. 18 (see accompanying story). In her resignation letter to St. Louis County Executive George “Buzz” Westfall, she expressed disapproval of the DOE’s interim plan, citing what she considers to be inadequate precautions. Before her resignation, she had submitted a detailed eight-page critique of the DOE’s plan. To date, she has received no answers to her questions.

FROM THE MCDONNELL Boulevard bridge, the turbid waters of Coldwater Creek are visible, flowing past chunks of concrete debris and swirling around a white plastic lawn chair marooned midstream. It is a typical suburban scene, a once-pristine waterway relegated to carrying sewage. Coldwater Creek carries other pollutants, too: Jet fuel from nearby Lambert Field has found its way into the watershed, as have salt, oil and automotive antifreeze, according to a DOE assessment. Another pollutant in the surface water is trichloroethylene, a known carcinogen. No one is certain of the long-term effects of such mixed waste on the environment or human health. It is also unknown how the chemical stew affects the migration of radioactive contaminants in surface and groundwater.

In essence, the airport site is a very large experiment with few scientific controls attached.

On the basis of data provided to it by cleanup-site contractors, last year’s hydrogeological panel decided contamination levels at the site would not pose an imminent risk for the next 100 years, an arbitrary figure imposed by the DOE’s guidelines. Yet some radioactive isotopes already discovered in ground and surface water at the site will last for hundreds of thousands of years. Although it downplayed the risks over the next century, the panel nevertheless concluded it would be inappropriate to use the site for long-term storage and repeatedly stated that many questions about the hydrology of the area remain a mystery.

Seepage of radioactivity into groundwater is by no means unique to St. Louis. Last week, the DOE formally admitted that the aquifer underlying the 560-square-mile Hanford nuclear reservation in Washington state has been contaminated. The radioactive waste, which is moving toward the Columbia River, is the result of 40 years of plutonium production at the site. The DOE, which long denied that groundwater contamination existed at Hanford, now claims the Columbia will not be threatened for the proverbial 100 years. However, the independent scientific analysis that forced the DOE to confess to the groundwater contamination calls the DOE’s estimates on risks to the river “unreliable.”

Tom Aley, a hydrologist who sat on the panel that studied the St. Louis airport site, is sure of one thing: The waste should have never been dumped here in the first place. Similar to Hanford, the waste here is situated on top of an aquifer. “It is a very poor site for disposal of that type,” says Aley, who owns Ozark Underground Laboratory Inc. Aley lists population density, groundwater contamination and the proximity of the site to Coldwater Creek as reasons not to store radioactive waste at the airport site.

His tempered approval of the cleanup is based in part on the lack of groundwater use in the area. However, Aley concedes there is much yet to be learned. “We don’t really have a good understanding of the vertical contamination,” he says. “The waste was deposited in a very haphazard manner, which was typical of that era. That has made cleanup very difficult. Another thing is, you can never totally clean up a site. A lot of these cleanups are real bootstrap operations. You have to pull one boot up, and then you have to pull the other up.”

The emperor may have buckled his boots, but he is without clothes. In short, no plan exists as to how to proceed with the remainder of the cleanup. Indeed, according to details of the DOE’s interim action, the current $8.3 million creek cleanup may ultimately have to be redone. The DOE’s engineering evaluation/cost analysis clearly states: “Although final clean-up criteria have not been established for this site, it is anticipated that the majority of the area cleaned up by this action will not require additional effort. However, final clean-up criteria, once selected, could require additional efforts in areas excavated in this removal action.”

Although the DOE acknowledges contamination at the site extends at least 18 feet deep, its interim plan requires digging only “eight to 10 feet below the existing land surface,” according to a Federal Register notice published in September. The DOE also acknowledges that “soil contaminated with radionuclides is present below (the) water table.” If contaminated groundwater is encountered during the dig, the DOE’s interim plan calls for it to be pumped onto high ground, which means it will re-enter the aquifer or run back downhill, toward the creek.

To battle this inevitable gravitational pull, the DOE has built a berm to separate the excavation work from the rest of the site. The interim action also calls for a channel to be constructed to reroute stormwater away from the roadside ditch that drains into the creek. In 1985, the DOE constructed a gabion wall — rocks secured by a wire basket — to hold the bank from sliding into the creek. It is a porous structure that by design allows water to percolate through. Whereas the effectiveness of these measures is subject to debate, there is no argument that radioactive sediments can still move downward into the aquifer and flow northwest under McDonnell Boulevard, thereby entering the creek unimpeded.

The hydrogeological study from last year warned about this possibility. “Groundwater monitoring has shown the migration of radionuclides in the direction of groundwater flow across McDonnell Boulevard and under the formerly used ball fields property to the north,” according to the study. “This factor raises concern over potential shallow discharge of radionuclides to Coldwater Creek to the west and north and potential vertical migration to the lower aquifer system.”

Three thousand people live within a one-mile radius of the airport site, according to DOE estimates. From the airport, Coldwater Creek flows northeast for 15 miles, touching the communities of Berkeley, Hazelwood, Florissant and Black Jack before discharging into the Missouri River. The city of St. Louis drinking-water intakes at Chain of Rocks, which supply water to hundreds of thousands of people, are five miles downstream from where the Missouri joins the Mississippi.

By any standard it is a densely populated watershed. DOE guidelines for thorium and radium concentrations mandate they not exceed 5 picocuries per gram averaged over the first 15 centimeters of soil and 15 picocuries per gram in subsequent soil layers of the same thickness. Analysis conducted for DOE in 1985 indicates that soil next to Coldwater Creek is contaminated with as much as 14,000 picocuries of thorium-230 per gram. The naturally occurring background level for the same radioactive isotope amounts to 0.2 picocuries per gram.

The corresponding guideline for acceptable DOE levels of uranium-238, which is also found at the airport site, is 50 picocuries per gram. In 1981, DOE initiated a two-year groundwater-monitoring program at the site and discovered uranium-238 at concentrations up to 2,230 picocuries per gram. Other evidence shows radioactive waste is spread across the site at levels thousands of times greater than considered acceptable.

A curie is the amount of radiation emitted from one gram of radium, equal to 37 billion decays per second. A picocurie equals a trillionth of a curie. Curies are used to measure the amount of material present; they don’t indicate the amount of radiation given off or its biological hazards.

Such DOE standards ignore potential health consequences, according to a 1991 congressional study. “The present regulatory-driven approach … places far more emphasis on characterizing the contamination than on investigating health impacts and may prove ill-suited to identifying public health concerns, evaluating contamination scenarios according to their potential for adverse health effects, or establishing health-based clean-up priorities,” the Office of Technology Assessment report states.

JOHN W. GOFMAN, a professor emeritus of medical physics at the University of California at Berkeley, has long contended that there is no safe level of radiation exposure. “I concluded it’s impossible for such a level to exist given the evidence on how radiation works,” says Gofman. The term “low-level radiation” is a political term used by the nuclear industry to lull the public into accepting exposure risks, he says. Similar phrases also downplay the consequences. “The terms `tolerance level,’ `allowable level,’ `permissible dose’ — those are all phenomenal words that are supposed to tell Joe Six-Pack, `Nothing to worry about — there ain’t no harm.’ That’s why these terms came into existence,” he asserts.

The 79-year-old Gofman is in a unique position to advise on such matters because he is a physician and holds a doctorate in nuclear physical chemistry. His research at Berkeley during World War II attracted the attention of J. Robert Oppenheimer, lead scientist in the Manhattan Project. After working on the atomic bomb at Oppenheimer’s request, Gofman completed his medical studies. But in 1969, Gofman fell from grace with the atomic establishment when he challenged the “acceptable” levels of radiation exposure then allowed.

After being ostracized by the atomic establishment for years, Gofman’s scientific opinions have been widely accepted of late. In 1990, for instance, after years of debate by U.S. scientists, a report by the fifth conference on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiation (BEIR V) concluded that radiation effects are proportional to dose in all cases. More recently, says Gofman, “The United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation said that the weight of evidence comes down on the side of no safe level. And the British National Radiological Protection Board in 1995 published a document in which they have now said that there can be no safe dose.”

Studies such as these lead Drey, the environmentalist, to question the logic of allowing further radioactive contamination to flow into Coldwater Creek. “Dilution is not the solution to pollution in reality or legally,” says Drey. “When you are dealing with materials that will continue to give off radioactive particles forever into the future, literally billions of years, you have to be very careful with this stuff.”

THIS IS NOT THE FIRST TIME Drey has opposed a DOE project. In 1993, she battled the department’s plans to clean up radioactive waste at nearby Weldon Spring in St. Charles County (“Rushing Water,” RFT,Jan. 6, 1993). Her vigilance then temporarily delayed that project, after she exposed the fact that the DOE was going ahead before receiving critical EPA test results.

Stephen H. McCracken, who headed the Weldon Spring cleanup, took over as St. Louis airport-site manager for the DOE earlier this year. Although the circumstances and nature of the radioactive waste may be different at the airport site, McCracken’s job switch hasn’t seemed to have affected his ability to circumvent government guidelines. If anything, the DOE official’s evasive end-runs appear to have improved over time.

Pryor, of the Coalition for the Environment, recalls that the decision was railroaded past the citizens oversight committee on which he sits. “We had hardly seen this darn thing,” says Pryor of the recommendation to proceed with work along the creek. “When we asked McCracken in September, he admitted it was just a guess,” says Pryor, referring to the point at which the DOE decided to begin excavating. The measure squeaked past the committee on a 4-3 vote. “We thought it was silly to go forward without the geological study,” says Pryor.

On Sept. 18, the day Drey resigned, McCracken signed a memorandum, which was immediately filed away. The memo cites an emergency clause that allowed him to waive the DOE’s standard 15-day public-review period for such actions. Sept. 18 also just happened to be the day DOE issued its “Flood-plain Statement of Findings” in the Federal Register. The purpose of the posting was to notify individuals and other government agencies of the pending action at the airport site so they could scrutinize the plan in advance. The notice clearly states: “DOE will endeavor to allow 15 days of public review after publication of the statement of findings before implementation of the proposed action.”

Four days later, on Sept. 22, work began at the St. Louis airport site.

Every conceivable government agency — local, state and federal — was left out of the loop. Even the DOE official who has oversight into such matters said he was unaware the emergency clause had been invoked. “I suppose you’d have to ask Steve McCracken about that,” drawled James L. Elmore, a National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) compliance officer for the DOE in Oak Ridge, Tenn. “I don’t have anything to do with that. You’d really have to ask him exactly what his total thought process was.” Despite his ignorance, Elmore’s name appears on the bottom line of the Sept. 18 Federal Register notice.

The RFT could not initially reach McCracken to explore his “thought process,” because, according to the secretary at the DOE site office, he was elk hunting in Colorado. After returning from his expedition, the DOE manager still did not return repeated calls placed to his office for a week. In his Sept. 18 waiver memo, however, McCracken wrote he had expedited the cleanup out of concern that autumn rainfall would make excavating near the creek more difficult. Come hell or high water, McCracken is expected to continue working at the site, at least during the transition period.

The airport site is on the Superfund’s NPL list, according to Dan Wall at the EPA regional headquarters in Kansas City. Because of its priority status, the agency is obliged to oversee the cleanup, he says. But it appears the contractors are more in control of the project than anybody else.

Calls placed to the DOE’s site office in St. Louis are answered by the cheerful voice of Edna, a secretary who works for Bechtel National Inc., one of the DOE’s prime cleanup contractors. She takes messages for McCracken and his assistant. In this case, she took messages for nearly two weeks, and for nearly two weeks the calls went unreturned. Finally, representatives for the DOE’s two prime contractors called back.

A secretary for a private company answers the phone at a government office, two corporate managers act as the mouthpieces for a government project, and the government official who is supposed to be in charge is elk hunting. This gives the appearance that the tail is wagging the dog. That may soon change under the new leadership of the corps. “The corps and the DOE operate somewhat differently,” says Leake. “The DOE will put very few people on a particular program and rely heavily on large national contractors to do a lot of the things that the Corps of Engineers try to do internally.”

The change in management styles will affect all of FUSRAP, which originated in 1974 under the AEC, the predecessor of the DOE. AEC established FUSRAP to deal with radioactive waste produced as a byproduct of nuclear-weapons production. Of the 46 FUSRAP sites across the country, 25 have been cleaned up, according to the DOE. Four remaining radioactive hotbeds are in the St. Louis area, with the airport site the largest.

In St. Louis and elsewhere, the DOE has relied on the expertise of Bechtel and Science Applications International Corp. to carry out its mission.

Wayne Johnson, the deputy project manager for Bechtel in St. Louis, is certain the cleanup next to Coldwater Creek is being carried out safely. “These measures have been monitored by the Missouri Department of Natural Resources, which has had representatives on the site routinely to look at our operations to make sure that we are not affecting the creek. In addition to that, St. Louis County, which has advised us on our plans for the work, has been out to the site,” says Johnson. “So we feel confident, and we are more than halfway done. We have not had any problems or affected the creek in any way.”

Ric Cavanagh of the St. Louis County Health Department, who chairs the citizens oversight commission, agrees with Johnson’s assessment. “I’m not a lawyer, but it is my understanding that they (the DOE) did make use of a provision in the rules to move forward. The majority of the oversight committee voted in favor of proceeding with the work,” says Cavanaugh. “We are purely advisory. We couldn’t have stopped it if we wanted to. The groundwater levels were very low at the time, and this was a very good time to get things going. (St. Louis County’s) goal was to get excavation begun and to get work begun at that site. So we were pleased to have it go from that standpoint.”

The oversight committee currently has 11 members — five from the city of St. Louis and six from St. Louis County. One seat remains vacant at this time. The board replaces an advisory task force that disbanded last year.

AT ONE TIME, workers toiled night and day to dump the radioactive waste at the airport site. The open pile rose to 20 feet above ground level, according to one DOE document. Altogether the accumulated waste at the site and elsewhere nearby is estimated to have once ranged from 283,700 to 474,000 cubic yards, according to the DOE. In additional to open dumping, Mallinckrodt workers were required to hand-pack waste in 30- or 55-gallon drums. The drums were then stacked on top of each other at the airport site. The barrels then began to leak.

In the process of storing the waste, haul routes and adjacent properties became contaminated. Then in 1966, the AEC sold most of the residues to Continental Mining and Milling Co, which promptly transported the waste to 9200 Latty Ave. in Hazelwood and then went bankrupt. The movement resulted in the contamination of more properties. Cotter Corp., a subsidiary of Commonwealth Edison, subsequently acquired the materials, with an eye toward reclaiming some of the minerals. The bulk of it ended up in Canon City, Colo., but not before one of Cotter’s subcontractors dumped thousands of tons of the waste in the West Lake landfill off Old St. Charles Rock Road in North St. Louis County.

More than 50 years after it started, the uranium-processing operation conducted at Mallinckrodt in St. Louis has forced almost $800 million in reparations on U.S. taxpayers — the cost of cleaning up the radioactive vestiges of World War II and the arms race that followed. To the victors go the spoils. It is a small part of the environmental damage wrought by the federal government and the nuclear-weapons industry over the last half-century — damage estimated to cost $200 billion to correct. What can never be measured are the lives cut short because of radiation exposure. Men have been tried for war crimes that did far less.